I read “The War Of the Worlds” by H.G Wells as a young teenager, and its opening lines were my first, and career defining, introduction to the wonder and hidden power of microbiology. Here are those lines:
“ that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
Tomorrow, I am honoured to be giving the Peter Wildy prize lecture, for my contribution to microbiology outreach and communication, at the Society of General Microbiology’s annual conference. I look out now over the city of Birmingham, and watch small and seemingly transient metal creatures swarm beneath me, and with the words of those first lines echoing powerfully in my mind, I feel now as if I am that man with the microscope, and the one that I always dreamt of becoming.
The title is taken from another of H.G Wells’ s microbiologically inspired books “The Stolen Bacillus”
and here’s what the man with the microscope might have seen
An abstract “bunch of grapes” made by the growth of MRSA
An abstract bunch of grapes, revealed when the growth of MRSA has been scraped away to reveal its interaction with the media beneath it. It leaves behind a blue residue.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a bacterium that is responsible for a number of difficult-to-treat infections in humans. This spontaneous work was inspired by the isolation of two strains of MRSA in Practical and Biomedical Bacteriology by two of our students.
Alexander Ogston (1844-1929) was a Scottish surgeon who in 1880 discovered the major cause of pus, that is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. He opened an abscess on one of his patients, made a stained smear of the released pus, and examined it under a microscope. On peering down the eyepiece he exclaimed:
“My delight may be conceived when there were revealed to me beautiful tangles, tufts and chains of round organisms in great numbers, which stood out clear and distinct among the pus cells and debris…”. Later Ogston named the clustered spherical bacterial cells “staphylococci,” from the Greek staphyle, meaning a bunch of grapes.
Above then is a little bit of MRSA art, an abstract bunch of grapes made by the growth of MRSA itself.
These are bacteria from my own microbiome. Whilst they are visually striking, for a change, they have not been selected on this basis. Instead, each one produces a novel and remarkable aroma, and when these are blended together, they generate a unique mood changing microbiomal scent. In this unique perfume, 11 individual bacterial notes have been combined to generate the world’s first bacterial perfume!
I’m still exploring crystallisation processes. This dark forest is made of pure silver and its fractal-like crystals form as a consequence of a displacement reaction between silver nitrate and copper metal.
Traditionally, what we consider to be “self” is usually restricted to the collection of 40 trillion or so eukaryote cells that derive directly from the 22,000 genes of our own human genome. However, the “omic” technologies of the 21st century are radically redefining the view that we have of ourselves, so that “self” can now be seen to extend beyond the traditional precinct of our visible form, and to include our resident bacterial community. In fact, our bacterial aspect (the microbiome), containing 100 trillion normally invisible cells, and 2 million microbial genes, dwarfs our eukaryotic genetics and physiology. Recent studies are now beginning to reveal the huge impact of the microbiome on our health and even its ability to modulate our behaviour.
This project stems from my thought that for every artist, either living today, or dead, that the body’s microbiome, that is its invisible hundreds of trillions of bacterial cells, would have made at least some contribution to the artist’s work, in terms of influencing the mood or health of the artist. Here, I gave this usually invisible aspect of ourselves the opportunity to paint for itself, away from my conscious intervention. Colourless bacteria from my own microbiome were mixed with traditional watercolours (red, blue and green) and left in a warm incubator to interact with these overnight. The following morning I discovered that the bacteria had picked up the paints, and then moved these watercolours around the medium, in the same way that an artist might paint. The paintings are thus unique self-portraits, being direct manifestation of the power, activity and complexity of my other bacterial self. These microbiomal paintings were produced by the bacteria from my hand, gut and mouth, and will soon be on display at The Eden Project’s groundbreaking exhibition on the microbiome.